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Rex Turner Rex Turner
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Trails serve as pathways to escape

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I work a lot with recreational trails. As you might guess, I'm a trail advocate. That being said, I had some fundamental questions rattling around the back of my skull the other day as I thought about trails. Why do we seek out trails? What are people personally trying to obtain? After all, the concept of recreational trails is pretty new to human history. While some trails do serve a utilitarian purpose, such as providing an alternative way for folks to reach work or the grocery store, the majority of trails today are designed for leisure.

Somehow, I don't think too many of our pre-industrial age forbearers engaged in a lot of purely recreational hiking or paddling. And as for motorized recreation, well it's pretty obvious folks weren't zooming along snowmobile trails in the Renaissance or pounding ATVs over rocky trails during the Bronze Age.

We are now a society that looks for leisure on the trail. More specifically, individuals look to trails as portals to something other a respite from the daily grind. In this way, trails can be thought of as being like books.

They are both pathways. While trails are literal pathways, they are also, like books, figurative pathways. Trails and books both take us places through our imaginations. In the case of books, it is pretty clear how reading words and turning pages moves a reader through the story, but the sights, sounds, smells and overall experience of following a trail sparks imagination as well.

This element of escaping into a trail is especially pronounced on wilderness or backcountry trails. Such trails wind through settings where nature prevails as the dominant force and mark on the landscape. The modern world of engines and cell phones, pavement and congestion gives way to wind sighing in seas of trees and roots twisting amidst moss-covered rocks. Though these trails are made and maintained by humans, the nuts and bolts of trail structures and maintenance routines are often as forgotten as the paper, ink and binding of a novel. There is almost a fiction along the trail, where the story of daily stress is replaced with an invigorating story written by nature.

Like any engrossing story, a trail experience can be fragile. Have you ever had someone give away the ending or major plot twist to a book or movie? A tossed-away soda bottle, tree carvings, trail damage from undesignated off-road-vehicle use or an assortment of other impacts are likewise spoilers tearing down what was a growing, wonderful experience built on at least a degree of imagination. Trail experiences, after all, are shaped by motivations, preferences, expectations and desires as much as the physical characteristics of the trail.

So if trails are like books and serve to fulfill our need to escape into nature, how do trail users protect the stories in the trail?

For one, we can all respect other users. Follow rules regarding designated uses. For example, stay off groomed ski trails if on snowshoes or on foot, and don't ride ATVs where they are not permitted. On the other hand, respect designated users. An ATV rider doesn't deserve the hairy eyeball for riding on trails designed and designated for their use in fact, these trails are frequently funded by ATV or snowmobile users.

Trail uses are designated for a number of important reasons; ignoring designations leads to an 'everything-everywhere' approach that homogenizes unique experiences, making it hard for some trail enthusiasts to find the 'story' they are looking to engulf themselves in.

Anything someone can do to minimize their impact on the trail retains the character of a trail. One of the seven 'leave no trace' principles is to travel and camp on durable surfaces. By staying in the center of a trail -- thereby avoiding trail braiding and widening, stepping on rocks or sand versus fragile vegetation and other techniques -- trail users can protect the experience of the next to come. Additionally, disposing of wastes properly, leaving natural items such as flowers as you find them, not removing historic artifacts and letting natural sounds prevail all keep the trail story compelling.

What is the point of having recreational trails? That could be a long, individualized answer. All the same, I like to think of books. Both present a diverse world of wonder and possibility. And can you imagine a world without books and trails?

Rex Turner is the Outdoor Recreation Planner for Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands

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